Towson advances to FCS title game

CHENEY, Wash. -- Numb. Surreal. And wet -- from a Gatorade bath.

Those are the three words that Towson coach Rob Ambrose used to describe what he was feeling after his program's five-year rebuilding journey culminated in a ticket to Frisco, Texas, for the Football Championship Subdivision national championship game with a 35-31 win over Eastern Washington on Saturday at Roos Field.

Towson will make its first appearance in the FCS national championship game when the Tigers face North Dakota State on Jan. 4.

That ticket was punched with an improbable fourth-quarter comeback. Down 31-21, playing with a backup quarterback and reeling from the Eagles scoring 31 unanswered points, quarterback Connor Frazier led Towson down the field in the final 11 minutes with touchdown drives of 75 and 71 yards to take the lead back.

"Belief, faith, trust, hard work. They're pretty powerful things. You put them all together you can accomplish things that people told you nobody (could) ever do," Ambrose said. "These kids were brought here on a dream, a chance to make history, to do things that have never been done."

With 17 seconds left, Frazier had his number called, sneaking over the goal line from the 1-yard line for the winning points on third down to cap the clinching 71-yard drive.

At different points in the game, both teams had complete control. Towson jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first half, the largest first-half deficit Eastern Washington had been in all season, before Eastern Washington cut the lead to 21-7 and eventually took the 31-21 lead in the third quarter.

Eastern's comeback was spurred by quarterback Vernon Adams, who ran around and made plays to the tune of 394 yards and two touchdowns.

"We knew what we were doing," Adams said. "We went into halftime calm. I was seeing everything fine that I saw on film. I just needed to make plays. I wasn't doing that the first half. Second half we came out, adjusted to some things. We did better in the second half. Just unfortunate we came out short."

Towson was rolling in the first half with senior quarterback Peter Athens, who was 8 of 9 for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, frustrating Eastern Washington's defensive line and making savvy plays down the field.

Momentum swung back to the Eagles when Athens took a hard hit on the shoulder on a scramble out. After a fumbled snap, Ambrose had to know whether his quarterback could go.

"I said, 'You're one of the toughest dudes I've ever met in my life,'" Ambrose said. "If you can't go, you've got to tell me. I'm really impressed that he put the team in front of himself (by telling me)."

The injury of Towson's senior offensive leader played a psychological part in Towson's second-half struggles, Ambrose said, but Frazier stepped up in relief for 196 total yards to go with his touchdown and two touchdown drives in the second half.

"Honestly, (coach) just said let's have some fun," Frazier said. "Being the backup, I have to be prepared for anything. That's how I approach each week. I felt pretty confident in the game plan this week."

Adams and the Eagles initially took advantage of the situation with a 17-0 quarter in which Adams was 8-of-11 for 131 yards in the process of leading three scoring drives.

But the Eagles weren't able to respond in the fourth quarter after Towson had cut it back to a one-possession game. Vernon Adams' fourth-and-2 pass was floated just past the fingertips of a wide-open Cooper Kupp, and the Tigers were given the ball back with just under two minutes to go.

A remorseful Adams tried to pin the fault on himself after the game, but teammate Cody McCarthy vehemently disagreed.

"Vernon didn't let this team down. The things he's able to do in incredible situations, most people can't; he makes plays," said McCarthy, a junior linebacker. "As a team we came up a couple points short. ... We'll be back at it again. No doubt about it I'd go to war with this man any day."

Adams' fourth-and-2 pass was the defensive stop Towson was digging deep for in the fourth quarter, safety Christian Carpenter said.

On Adam's final pass of the game, Carpenter leapt up and collected the interception to put Frisco, Texas, on the itinerary for good.

"The final drive, we said, 'Look, this is our season right now. Either we stop them or we're going home," Carpenter said. "That was all in our head. We didn't want to stop playing."

This is Eastern Washington's second consecutive season of semifinal heartbreak, falling last season to Sam Houston State on the inferno turf 45-42.

Meanwhile, this is the Tigers' first opportunity at the FCS national championship. And for Ambrose, it's a culmination of a five-year rebuilding of a program that went 3-9 the year before he came in.

"(We're) at a place where people said it couldn't be done, and these kids didn't listen to any of it," Ambrose said.

NOTES: Towson running back Terrance West set the FCS season record for rushing yards, ending the night with 2,404. Jamaal Branch set the record at Colgate in 2003 with 2,326 yards. ... Eastern Washington freshman Cooper Kuff, winner of the Jerry Rice award for top receiver in FCS, finished the night with 124 yards on eight receptions. ... Towson backup quarterback Connor Frazier also serves as a receiver and kick holder and saw plays in the first half as a receiver, though he did not catch any passes.